The wacky world of wines

Last May marked the thirty year anniversary of a seminal moment in the wine industry. In 1976

eight of the finest palates in France gathered at the Intercontinental Hotel in Paris 30 years ago to sample the latest offerings from up-and-coming Californian winemakers, the day began in an atmosphere of relaxed informality.

In attempt to spice up the proceedings, the organiser Steven Spurrier thought it would be fun to compare American wine with the best French through blind tastings ­a decision that sent shockwaves through the wine trade.

Tasters stormed out crying “scandale” when the Paris tasting found the Californian wines had beaten the finest Bordeaux and Burgundies the natives could offer in white and red categories. New World wine had arrived.

Last night, exactly 30 years later, Mr Spurrier and the wine dealers Berry Brothers assembled 80 experts from both sides of the Atlantic to recreate the experiment. Meeting at Berry Brothers in Piccadilly and at Copia in the heart of Californian winemaking country, they tested the original wines to see if they had stood the test of time.

Almost unthinkably, California routed the French even more convincingly than it did three decades ago, upturning the critics’ damning predictions that Napa Valley’s grapes would not age so well.

The experts’ top five wines yesterday were all Californian ­ among them the runaway winner, the 1971 Ridge Monte Bello. (Independent)

Good thing these were blind taste tests. As University of Bordeaux wine researcher Frederic Brochet has shown, non-blind taste tests are almost meaningless. (Professionals in the wine industry, unsurprisingly, have been very critical of this research.)

He took a middling Bordeaux and served it in two different bottles. One bottle was a fancy grand-cru. The other bottle was an ordinary vin du table. Despite the fact that they were actually being served the exact same wine, the experts gave the differently labeled bottles nearly opposite ratings.

The grand cru was “agreeable, woody, complex, balanced and rounded,” while the vin du table was “weak, short, light, flat and faulty”. Forty experts said the wine with the fancy label was worth drinking, while only 12 said the cheap wine was.

Now comes news of another taste test (presumably blind), this time comparing wines bottled with screwcaps and those with cork.

Since enjoying wine is in many ways a race against time (and oxygen), how a bottle of wine gets sealed is of utmost importance. Corks have their detractors since they can introduce the noxious chemical TCA that makes wines “corked.” Further, the pieces of tree bark can lose their elasticity as they age letting in wine’s nemesis, oxygen.

Screwcaps, by contrast, can provide such a tight seal that no oxygen gets in and there is no problem with TCA. Many proponents of screwcaps (or Stelvin closures, if you must) might suggest that the only thing standing between them and domination of the wine world is consumer resistance since wines bottled “en screw” have typically been seen as more downmarket. And what would you do with your $100 corkscrew if you only had to twist the cap off?

One vintner bottled identical wines using both screwcaps and cork; these wines were used in the taste test. Only at the “higher end cuvees” were the opinions evenly divided; at the lower ends, the screwcapped wines were clear winners.

The difference was shocking. With screwcap, the 2002 Chablis St. Martin was still a youthful, flinty Chablis without a whole lot of intrigue but solid and fresh. The cork closure for the same wine, by contrast, was older tasting with more signs of oxidation. Everyone save one person at the tasting preferred the screwcap.

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One response to “The wacky world of wines

  1. Pingback: You get what you pay for « The Gleaners

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